Get Real

by Sebastian Benthall

Internet is expensive in South Africa, since all uploaded data has to travel via satellite.  So I will try to keep myself terse.

On the first day of FOSS4G2008, Sindile Bidha delivered a “lighting talk” on “GIS in schools programme and Quantum GIS.”  Quantum GIS, or QGIS, is open source desktop GIS software. Bindha spoke about how in Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces of South Africa, they were trying to introduce QGIS into the high school curriculum.  The challenges?  Among others: no trained teachers, no documentation, and no computers.

The next lightning talk was delivered by Arnulf Christl, president of OSGeo.  He rexcitedly read passages from the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and interspersed his own commentary:

This is a revolution.  No, it’s an evolution.  The whole world can connect instantly, everywhere!

There was a talk given today on the subject of “Mapping the Sanitary Sewers of a South African City – First Experiences with FOSS GIS.”  Somebody is apparently making tentative steps to use open source geospatial software to make sure shit is disposed of properly.  First steps.

I didn’t go to that talk.

Instead, I went to a talk entitled “Participatory Free and Open Source GIS in the Web 2.0.”  A Brazilian masters student studying in Osaka told us that  the Web 2.0 was exciting because…well, I forget the specifics, but the reasons were displayed on a slide in the form of a tag cloud.  She told us that her thesis was on the future of the web and GIS.

“Studying the future is very popular in Japan; when I went there for the first time, I thought it looked like the future!”

Because crowds are wiser than individuals, she needed to talk to several people–maybe 30 total–about their predictions of the future, for her thesis.  She breathily asked the audience of nerds “who are so passionate about their work”–on the word passionate she turned to a slide displaying a red heart on a white background that was reminiscent of the Japanese flag–if they would agree to be interviewed by her.  To tell her what they thought.  About the future.

Q&A begins.  The first question from the audience, loud and clear: “How do I sign up for an interview?”

Another talk I missed today was about the “Development of a Malaria Decision Support System based on Open Source Technologies.”  Each talk–about malaria, about sewers, about the Web 2.0–was twenty minutes long.  About every three seconds, a child dies of malaria.

One issue that has come up frequently at FOSS4G is the importance of having free (as in “freedom”) data to be used with all the FOSS geospatial software that the conference is about.  The software is useless without data.  We are reminded of this most stridently by the OpenStreetMap community, which holds “parties” where they collect data by walking through streets with GPS in their hands.  They held one of these parties to map Hout Bay, a suburb outside of Cape Town, last Sunday just before the conference.  They put their data on the web under a CC-by-sa license (though, admittedly and regretably, the license cannot legally apply to the data because data does not fall under copyright law).

Late in the afternoon, I attended a workshop about GIS education.  It was attended primarily by people from South Africa’s GIS community; they were trying to figure out how the hell they could teach people how do work with GIS software.  At some point, somebody asks about how schools can get data for GIS students to work with in the classroom.  Ideally, it’s data that is local and relevant to the students’ lives.  Some guy from the South African government piped up:

“Oh, we have lots of data–on roads, lakes, vegetation, everything–and we want to make it free.  We just don’t have the bandwidth to host it!”

The government doesn’t have the fucking bandwidth.

Internet is expensive in South Africa.